Because of an atrocious chemical weapon attack against civilians, the situation in Syria has changed abruptly. The US assertively drew the conclusion that the Syrian government was the perpetrator. Whether or not the US will launch a military operation against Syria has become the focus of world attention. Kidnapped by his redline of “using chemical weapons”, President Obama seemed to have no other choice.
As a matter of fact, for the following four reasons, the US is not so eager to conduct military attacks on Syria. First, the opposition parties have not grown up yet. It is easier to overthrow the Bashar Assad regime than to establish a pro-US government, which has sound governance and is widely supported by Syrian people. To make things worse, there are terrorist groups mingled within the opposition parties. If Syria becomes a new breeding bed for terrorism and extremism instead of a new state of democracy, the US will be more regretful. Second, alliance forces have not taken shape yet. Up till now, there has been little international support for military intervention. Only France has indicated it would join a US military strike, Australia is offering moral support; while the UK Parliament has rejected military action, and others are waiting for more information and further assessment. The US will not be willing to undertake all military risks and expenses alone. Third, military deployment is not ready. Jordan has clearly refused to be used as a launching pad for attacks on Syria. 7-month-long air strikes on Libya have almost exhausted French precision-guided munitions. US naval ships in the Mediterranean can only launch a limited number of missiles. Since Syrian military strength is more powerful than that of Libya, light air strikes will not inflict heavy losses on the Syrian military. Fourth, the United Nations Security Council has not given the US any authorization. Russia has reminded that any military action without UN authorization will be violating international law. Russia will surely abstain on any resolution allowing the use of force in Syria. Without UN authorization, Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has to think twice.
Even if Obama gets an approval from the Congress, the scale of military actions will be limited. There might be three means of action: establishment of a no-fly zone, surgical air strikes, and concentrated strikes. First, the establishment of a no-fly zone can maintain air dominance and help the opposition forces reverse the tide of battle. In the name of preventing humanitarian disasters, a no-fly zone appears to be more justifiable. Nevertheless, the plan requires hundreds of airplanes, help from US allies, and a lot of money. Second, beyond the reach of Syrian air defense fires, by using cruise missiles and drones, the US can conduct precision strikes against the command and communications systems, missile batteries, airports, and other military facilities of Syria. There will be few casualties. However, precise intelligence will be vital for the effectiveness of such surgical strikes. Third, by making the best of all forward-deployed forces, the US and its allies can conduct concentrated and high-frequency bombings on Syrian targets, to achieve the most cost-effective destruction within a short period of time.
Generally, the above-mentioned means are limited in scale, and cannot fundamentally change the overall situation in Syria. Instead, any military action will certainly have negative repercussions in the international community. First, the Middle East will be more turbulent. Even if Israel does not participate in the military intervention in Syria, there will be the possibility that Hamas and Hezbollah would try to relieve the besieged by attacking Israel. Besides, reactions from Russia and Iran are unpredictable. Second, Syria will go into a prolonged civil war. On the one hand, opposition forces can buy more time to recover, obtain more support, and grow in strength; on the other hand, limited strikes from the US and its allies would not be fatal to the Bashar Assad regime. Foreign military intervention will lead to a severe domestic situation. Third, throngs of refugees will flee to neighboring countries, extremism and terrorism will find more opportunities, and US global interests will be in graver jeopardy. Fourth, the international law will be violated, national sovereignty trampled on, and international order disrupted, setting another bad example in the world.
Ma Jun is a Specially Invited Research Fellow for the Center on China-America Defense Relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science.